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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

#notallassholes; Or, Shart Week

Taking into account two fresh new stories that might make one consider the merits of capital punishment:

First is the heartwarming tale of one Douglas McAuthur (sic; Jesus H. Christ, do people not own a fucking history book or a liberry card?) McCain. Now, while Doug is not (as far as we know) related to our good friend Poor Ol' Straight Talk, he did make the fateful decision to leave his decadent, meaningless existence in San Diego, and join up with the world's most notorious terrorist group, to bravely slaughter villages of unarmed unbelievers and behead infidel journalists. You can sort of get why a kid in some horrid Middle Eastern despotism might say "the hell with it" and take up arms against whoever and whatever. What possesses a homegrown dipshit to head to one of these god-forsaken places to murder and pillage, who knows? Sounds like he got what he was looking for.

Second is this charming little story from England, where piece-of-shit "gangs" preyed upon children while the authorities turned a blind eye and scorned the victims, some of them as young as 11. Because nothing says "tough guy" like preying on sixth-graders, amirite? Forget all that claptrap of "the state has no right to take life," every one of these gang assholes needs to be lined up against a wall, and the "authorities" that let it go on need to do some serious time. I would seriously suggest that someone who participates or facilitates the gang-rape of children is not a fucking human being, and therefore you're just ridding the world of a rabid animal.

These are the sorts of things that serve as a reminder that the planet won't miss us when we finally push its climate past the point of no return.

Second Amendment Remedies

I'm sorry, but as they say in the 'hood, heh indeedy. Look, this is precisely the sort of thing that gun control advocates have a point about -- this weird "gun culcha" that encourages adults and children to treat dangerous weapons as toys. What kind of an asshole hands a fucking Uzi to a nine-year-old girl? And what sort of moron parents not only allow this, but video it?

You have to be fifteen or sixteen to get a permit to drive an automobile. You have to be sixteen or seventeen in most states to legally have sex or get married. You have to be eighteen to vote, or to fight for your country in the military. You have to be twenty-one to legally imbibe an alcoholic beverage.

So let's pose the obvious question -- in what sane universe with those sorts of age-based regulations does it make sense to allow nine-year-olds to handle automatic weapons? Everyone involved in this is getting exactly what they earned, but sadly the poor girl is going to have to live with the consequences of what the responsible adults with her should have taken care of.

Ad and Subtract

We've done a few "revenue model" posts this year, highlighting the rapidly changing dynamic taking place on these here internets, and how it has radically altered the traditional pelf-scooping activities that were enjoyed unhindered -- indeed, with a 10-year-old Cuban cigar, a 15-year-old Scottish single malt, and a 20-year-old Malaysian escort performing spectacular fellatio -- by the establishment media impresarios in the past.

So now it's a brave new world of content curation and such like, and so, since we're willing to put up with commercials, we must of course be willing to put up with pop-up ads. I dunno about you, Tonstant Weader, but I'll share this with you -- I pay about $90/month to DirecTV for I have no idea what, and aside from HBO, there's commercials up the wazoo on every fucking channel. I remember as a kid watching broadcast teevee being told that commercials were the price we paid for free content -- so now we're paying for the content and the commercials? Hunh. Spare me the lecture, So-crates.

There are two competing ideas here, both of them absolutely true. One is that people who create content -- even shitty "12 Weird Things You Didn't Know About Justin Bieber" copy-and-paste articles -- deserve to be compensated for their effort, commensurate to the value they create. Unfortunately, almost all value on the internet is created by selling advertising.

Which brings us to the second thing, the idea that the internets, just like the broadcast airwaves, should belong to the people. I mean you paid for it, right?

But because advertising, like gorging on food, is one of the few things Americans do well anymore, we get to sit through a million fucking commercials selling cheap insurance and expensive pharmaceuticals. Apparently we are running out of these things, if the wisdom of the marketplace is to be duly heeded.

And the wild wild web is no different in that unfortunate respect, a veritable wasteland waiting to be populated by pop-ups and embedded videos and such. Maybe they have packet sniffers waiting to spoof your computer's cloaca and give it the violent malware buttfucking it's been waiting for, maybe not. The choice is yours, valued consumer!

Where you used to just purchase a device that allowed you access to the entertainment infrastructure -- a television, in other words -- you now have to purchase the device and the access and the content itself. And you still have to put up with all the goddamned commercials!

Most of this, of course, is just a sop to the telecom giants who own and operate the infrastructure, per the supposed capitalist model. Capitalism, you may recall on the off chance that it occurred somewhere in the past for you, is predicated on the idea that someone creates a product or provides a service, and you exchange a fair amount of money for that product or service. This idea is commonly known as "fair value" or "getting your money's worth."

So, uh, when was the last time you really felt that you got your money's worth from the telecom industry -- $100/month for 500 channels, maybe 12 of which are worth watching; $50/month for "broadband" that really isn't (though at least your choices on the internet really are damn near infinite; it's your own fault you chose to while away your time jerking it to midget porn and playing internet spades all night); and another $40 or so per month to play Candy Crush and take selfies on your smartphone.

Now, value judgments aside, the point here is not really about our entertainment choices, it's about what kind of value we get in return for renting an infrastructure paid for by tax dollars in the first place. Imagine what you could get if your infrastructure wasn't controlled by demotivated greed-sucking monopolistic enterprises.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Police State

What can you say about a nation where fat, white, middle-aged slobs routinely carry rifles and handguns into parking lots and department stores with no consequence whatsoever, while unarmed black teenagers are (also routinely) shot in the street, whether by aforementioned gun-toting slobs playing at law enforcement, or by actual police officers, at which the blue wall goes up.

On occasion, thankfully, when the wall goes up, the shit goes down. Such is the case in Ferguson, MiseryMissouri, where young Michael Brown was shot by a cop, after being "warned" to walk on the sidewalk instead of the street. In broad daylight, no less. Then they left him there for hours. Well, I guess that'll teach him, right? Maybe we could bring back the gibbet.

So now, since the 2/3 majority black population of Ferguson has rebelled against their almost all-white police force and city leaders, the cops decide to flex nuts and harass journalists, and anyone who might have the temerity to, you know, document for posterity what these apes are doing to protect and serve the public. Someone might want to remind them that that is, in fact, their job.

The increase in use of force, lack of accountability, and more dangerous toys deployed by paramilitarized police forces -- even suburban and rural ones; this is no longer strictly the realm of urban forces -- continues unabated. The typical excuse given, for the ramping-up in general and the use of force in particular, is the timeworn "dangerous job" excuse, even though job-related police fatalities have been on the decline for many years, reaching a record low in 2013. In fact, many other occupations, from farming to construction work, typically have far higher rates of occupational fatality.

(Not to mention the rather obvious fact that, if you feel your job is simply too dangerous, maybe you should find another line of work. One thing law enforcement has in common with every other occupation in America is that no one forces you to do it. Hokay? Seriously. Are we tired yet of hearing these mewling excuses, the plaints that since the job is too hard and a few people are dangerous assholes, the solution is to treat everyone -- or at least minorities -- like they're dangerous assholes? Whatever happened to the idea that those who would sacrifice liberty for safety deserve neither? I would suggest that those who would sacrifice the liberty of others for their own safety deserve a swift kick in the nuts.)

Look, I know a fair number of police personally, and I literally (yes, I know what that word means) work less than twenty feet from law enforcement personnel. So I know, and I think many of you know, first-hand that most cops are fine, good people, members of the community, etc. There's just a few of them who are punks and assholes who use their toys and authoritah to push taxpayers around.

And there are punks and assholes in any line of work. But only in law enforcement -- or more broadly, criminal and administrative justice -- can punks and assholes not only get away with, but earn a solid buck being themselves, almost always without recourse. If your plumber is a pushy dickhead, you never use him again, and tell anyone who'll listen about his attitude. If you get shitty food and service at a restaurant, you can turn around and fuck them up via Yelp. But a bad cop can get away with a hell of a lot before anyone can actually do anything about it.

I suggest that at least part of the problem is not only the inordinate amount of deference we are all conditioned to grant unconditionally to the police (another element of paramilitarization -- I mean, you wouldn't question a soldier in uniform, would you?), but the increasing profitability of the law enforcement racket, from shithole towns shaking down passersthrough to the private prison industry. Even though crime rates, especially violent crime rates, have steadily declined, the force gets multiplied, corrupt authorities feed the machine with hapless souls in exchange for kickbacks, and the wheels keep turning. It's just another racket, like the finance, higher education, and health care rackets that run this country. Except no one can force you to go to college or to the hospital.

When you have a fuckton of money to be made, and almost zero accountability, you really can just about get away with murder. Ten bucks says that whenever the cop that shot Mike Brown like a dog in the street is finally identified, he walks away scot-free. And there'll be countless internet commenter douchebags to bark their hate and loathing, not aware that, but for their skin color, they could quite easily be the next dead dog.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Protest and Survive

Great interview in one of the local free sheets, with a gentleman who did a couple years for the high crime of crashing a land auction. What's particularly galling about this case is that not only did the judge rig the jury selection process by stocking it with people who pledged their allegiance to his decree rather than their consciences, but that it wasn't even allowed to be discussed at the trial that the auction in question had been ruled illegal.

There are other worthy tidbits throughout, not the least of which involves a cop who, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, realized his basement was being shoveled out by on of the Occupy kids he had been told to truncheon in Zuccotti Park.

I differ from Mr. DeChristopher in his hope or belief that the cop might have been transformed even a little bit by such an encounter. Oh, it might have made him think a bit, but probably not enough to question seriously why he mindlessly did what he had "been told" to that kid and others like him, not enough to change the trajectory of his ways or beliefs.

DeChristopher's dismay (I was hoping for more palpable contempt, but the guy is simply too nice) for the chickenshit bien pensant liberal baby boomers is also choice -- and also not enough to get them to change their ways. They are clearly content to believe that shopping organic and voting Democratic is sufficient, that climate change is a problem for the next generations to figure out. They hung on, made their money, and they're going to by-god take as much of it -- as well as the health care and Social Security funding of the next generations -- with them as possible.

The problem is, since they have most of the money, they have most of the political power, and so pay for a system that keeps inert just long enough for them to finish their days in comfort, and then everyone who's left can start sacrificing.

I don't think Americans of any generation will start to take climate change seriously until there's a truly catastrophic -- and I mean like mid-five figures of casualties -- event, something like twenty Katrinas or Sandys all at once, on an "important" US city like Los Angeles or New York. Somebody famous will have to perish.

And even then, because the system more than anything counts on inertia, counts on people's willingness to be distracted from their fate for just one more day, there's always the chance that it'll go away. Think of the huge events of this new century already, man-made or natural -- 9/11, Fukushima, Katrina, the extended wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. After all the news coverage and the hand-wringing in the aftermath, what actually changed in the wake of any of these things?

Did 9/11 change our approach to dealing with the Muslim world? No, we still prop up corrupt petrocrats, sell them weapons, let them oppress their people into a senseless rage, and then wonder what the fuck is wrong with "those people". Did we take any measures that showed that we take seriously the clear ramifications of global warming and carbon concentration in the atmosphere after Katrina or Sandy or the 2004 tsunami? You tell me.

Consider -- in the space of a few minutes, nearly a quarter-million lives in fourteen countries were ended, and hundreds of thousands more transformed, by the tsunami. Yes, it was caused by an earthquake, and no, there wasn't anything man-made about an undersea subduction. But it should have been a potent reminder of the power of nature, and the powerlessness of humans to stop it.

It's not just Americans, though we certainly set the stage for all this. The Chinese and Indians, after all, are just following our model, empowered by the blessings of globalization and the credo of The Chicago Group. It's difficult to blame them for wanting to catch up with us in standard of living.

Yet that bears consequences, when 1 in every 3 humans lives in China or India, and 1 in every 2 -- think about that, especially if you're in America, which has comparatively sparse population density overall, every second human being -- lives in Asia. And most people live in cities, and most cities are near oceans, and the levels are rising, and will take as long or longer to reverse than they did to set in motion.

We don't all have to go full eco-activist and go to prison, in a system that's rigged to begin with. But if enough people, just in the US, looked at the three primary factors -- what/how we drive; what/how we eat; what/how we consume in general -- all of which are within lost people's control, a real dent can be made in this very real and growing problem.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Bot World

I'm glad to see the estimable John Robb back on regularly at Global Guerrillas, as he frequently has that futuristic take on things. Case in point:  the steadily increasing presence of bots in the routine tasks that affect our lives and perceptions of the world. Most of us are probably aware to at least some extent of the proliferation of automated algorithms in financial trading, or article "spinners" used by internet marketers.

But it's becoming more and more prevalent; the notion that a bot could be used to spin a million Wikipedia articles is staggering. The idea that the same tech could be used to generate more conventional content -- books, magazines, movie scripts -- is annoying. That bots are doing most Wall Street trading should be a cause of concern. The possibility that bots may, sooner rather than later, be driving us around -- and that there may be insurance ramifications that necessitate having them drive us around -- should be alarming.

Even setting aside the sci-fi Skynet scenario of AI taking over, or the already problematic issue of near-constant government surveillance, think of how many jobs are lost just in the four proposed uses for bots (and of course there are and will be many more uses). In a groaning, increasingly overcrowded planet, with resource scarcity issues looming on all fronts, with any and every function automated, what exactly are all those unemployed people supposed to do?

Words With Friends

When it comes to pedantic arguments over "correct" usage of this or that word, I tend to be something of a fence-straddler. I personally know and use the right word in the right manner, because I regard them as tools with specific functions. Just as you wouldn't use a screwdriver where a wrench is called for, why would you use "literally" for an analogy that is clearly figurative, or even fantastical?

However, as a practical matter, correcting someone on their incorrect usage is off-putting, a clear dick move. They are not going to learn from your noble example. Save your time, and your reputation, and move on. I recall seeing some fluff Sunday morning show piece about a couple of guys who would go around to restaurants and "help" them correct their menus, usually over misspelled words or misused apostrophes. Life is just too short.

The "literally" thing actually makes a small bit of sense to me, because there's not really a common-usage adverb -- aside from "figuratively" itself, which might be somewhat unwieldy in a casual conversation -- that conveys the figurative nature of the exaggeration in question. We know that the speaker's head did not literally explode, and yet it's scarcely worth the trouble to point out that that word does not mean what they think it means. They know, that just happens to be the handiest word at their disposal.

Now, I'll admit that I take a breath when I see the aforementioned misspellings, and especially the misused apostrophes, because the rules on those are so simple -- possessives, not plurals. Writing "ect." (or saying "ek cetera") is another peeve, because "et cetera" has a literal meaning, an actual function. "Should of" instead of "should have", that sort of thing. Approached as tools with functions, these things are not at all complicated.

But habits -- especially bad ones -- form through inattention and lack of caring. This is what the corrective pedants, well-meaning as they are in their quest to preserve the care and feeding of our noble, evolving language, may not quite get. People use "ect." and can't get the correct "your" or "there" homophone because they don't give a shit. By definition, correcting someone who clearly couldn't care less will not correct the mistake, but merely annoy that person.

Back in the chat forum days, I had several lively discussions about this subject with professional academic linguists, people charged with the mission of identifying, classifying, and organizing the various phonemic and grammatical constructs of languages. As a kid, I was fascinated by a variety of languages, and gained at least minimal competency in most of the major European languages.

The more you learn about language -- especially one as widespread and multiply sourced as English -- the more you realize that it is never static, it's a river that flows slowly but flows nonetheless. As with political systems, the outcomes of languages are frequently a result of a large enough mass of users who don't know or care to understand the nuances of what they're engaging in. They deploy it to convey their own immediate use, and some of it will accrue habitually. The more they read and/or write, the more competent they will be in hewing to convention, as one might imagine.

And that, ironically, is where preservationist linguists fall short, imho. It's easy to understand the impulse to chronicle and archive one of the thousands of dying languages around the world, spoken only by a dwindling group of elders in a remote village. But that impulse contradicts what we've noted above, that languages evolve with use. A dying language, by definition, is no longer one that is being used. It is intellectual lepidoptery to stipulate that a language that is dying out precisely because of its lack of use and interconnectivity has any utility, beyond capturing the oral history of the remaining few who speak that language.

In the end, the pedantic attention to upholding the simpler and more obvious conventions of language comes down to cash in many instances. I've been on plenty of hiring panels, and thus reviewed hundreds of résumés over the years. And I can tell you right now, when I encounter a misspelled word or a misused apostrophe on a cover letter or résumé, I don't bother correcting jack shit. I don't have the time. It just goes straight into the round file, I won't even bother to finish reading it.

And I'm far from the only one; I have heard and read plenty of hiring managers say the exact same thing. Ultimately what it comes down to is whether or not someone can be bothered to pay attention to what they're (as opposed to their) doing, and if they can't, hiring managers won't waste their time with that stuff.

Pawns

Another day, another Gaza cease-fire, another opportunity for Hillary to get some distance from Mr. Popularity and burnish her fo-po cred for the inevitable '16 run -- which, since it's only 27 months out and hundreds of millions of dollars need to be raised, should be official any day now. (Even better, rather than Jeb, conventional speculation is now projecting Clinton's opponent to be none other than Mitt Romney. Again. Awesome. Is this the greatest political system on the fucking planet, or what?)

So as much as nobody really wants to consider all sides on the awful, insoluble subject of Israel vs. Palestine, perhaps no other issue demands close attention to both clear perspectives. Neither side has ever expended huge amounts of effort dealing in good faith; unilateral withdrawals from a seething seaside ghetto mean little when elsewhere, families are uprooted from their homes because Zionist settlers want their property for themselves. And Hamas insists on indoctrinating its hate early and often, and doubling down on its charter's stipulation of killing and driving out all Jews.

American politicians have long been accustomed to prescribing clear, simple pronunciamentos -- almost all of which are at the very least devoid of context or perspective, and are frequently just flat-out wrong. This reinforces the notion that electorate craves or needs simplistic resolve, that there is no room for nuance. Certainly it must never be admitted that maybe large swathes of people around the world don't like us and are riled up because we haven't been friends to them.

Every year on December 7, there is a solemn ceremony of remembrance at Pearl Harbor, the attack on which took place in 1941. No doubt there will be similar ceremonies for 9/11 long after you and I and our children have passed on.

The mantra for these tragedies is that we must never forget, which is certainly clear, simple, true, resonates with just about anyone, regardless of their political bent. And yet it seems inconceivable to most Americans that other countries -- who lost many times more people, not to mention generations of strongmen, torture, fear, and all the other trappings of authoritarian regimes propped up by American support over the years -- might hold a grudge. We must never forget, but they've just got to let it go.

I am not suggesting that the way to end all strife is to have a massive group hug and chant "Kumbaya". I am suggesting that basic empathy, on the part of all sides, is key to achieving any resolution. Israelis need to understand that treating every Palestinian miserably, in all aspects of their daily lives, is going to beat them down until they have nothing to lose. Palestinians need to get that, as long as they keep endorsing leaders who use women and children as human shields, while they themselves kick back in Qatar or Bahrain and watch the bloody PR campaign from afar, Israel simply has no percentage in accommodating Hamas' tactics.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Tea for Two

In a world full of phantom scandals, the attempt to make deposed IRS factotum Lois Lerner look like the Obersturmbannführer of the imaginary teabagger persecution wing ranks as one of the more desperate, right down there with your Benghazis and your border security rambunctions.

Look, I'm about the last person to stick up for the IRS, especially since it's expanding as part of Obamacare, but there's just nothing to this one. These shithead astroturf teabagger groups tried to apply for non-profit tax status, but keep their political advocacy. And you can't do that. Hundreds of liberal groups were denied that status as well, but you don't hear them crying.

Even more pathetic is the way this plaint is tinged with dark undertones of "animus" and targeting, as if these poor patriots were being followed around and harassed by gubmint goons. No, such cheap and cowardly tactics seem to be the province of gun nuts, who are all too happy to pick on veterans and women who happen to disagree with the notion that an anonymous asshole strapped with an assault rifle in a Chipotle is a good idea.

All Lerner said -- in a private email, poor judgment in using her gov't account aside -- was that the talk-radio hosts catering to these maroons were "assholes" and "crazies". It's hard to disagree with that assertion, and in fact, it does transmit to the listeners, by osmosis if nothing else.

But it seems clear that right-wing radio, more so than what passes for a left-wing counterpart, traffics specifically in affirmation, rather than information. That crazy uncle that keeps forwarding Glenn Beck rants to you isn't trying to stay informed, no matter what he says or thinks. He's affirming his imaginary grievances, mustering ad hominem arguments to bolster his lame assertions that the blah guy has fucked up everything and anything, most likely on purpose.

It's amazing to think that what passes for political debate in this country is, more often than not, merely an exchange of fnords, a distraction created by a select few to keep the many at each others' throats, lest they pay attention to the hand which is always and forever in their pockets.

Crime and Punishment

As if there weren't enough reasons yet to feel guilty about watching sports, especially football, consider the current kerfuffle over Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. Rice, as you probably know by now, was caught on video in a hotel, punching his girlfriend (now wife) unconscious, then dragging her out of the elevator.

For what is (last I checked) a violent crime (that is to say, aggravated assault), Rice not only managed to avoid prosecution, but in a league that routinely suspends players for four games for testing positive for marijuana use (yes, even in Denver and Seattle, where it's legal), NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Rice for just two games.

One might say that this is simply the price sports fans pay for enjoying sports -- not the culture of macho posturing and woofing (and yes, in some cases, even domestic violence or suicide), but the culture of enablement that pervades star athletes. For the rare few that make it to the pros, these men and others that have a decent shot are, in many cases, coddled and feted and spoiled from the time they show potential in high school. Whether they knock up a cheerleader, or beat someone's ass in a barroom brawl, the athlete with star potential always has family members or alumni boosters to step in and take care of the mess. After all, the player is a cash cow for these concerned parties, should his career happen to last beyond the 4-year average for NFL players.

An even more egregious comparison to Rice's slap on the wrist would be Terrelle Pryor, who in a convergence of NCAA and NFL punitive action, not only fell to the supplemental draft (costing him millions), but was pre-suspended -- that is, before Pryor was even drafted, he had this punishment imposed on him, thus serving as draft baggage -- for five games. Pryor's high crime? Accepting a couple of free tattoos while he was at Ohio State, possibly a 350Z as well.

See, when it comes to exploiting people, the National Collegiate Athletic Association has the National Football League beaten every conceivable way. To be sure, the NFL makes tons of money off the players, but the players are adults by that point, belong to a professional union that negotiates on their behalf, get high salary minimums, etc. It's millionaires playing for billionaires, but everyone (except the cheerleaders) is at least making some money.

The NCAA, on the other hand, has no such safeguards for its wet-behind-the-ears, straight-out-of-high-school chattel, nor any compunction about using them to turn a buck. The schools make a fuckton of cash selling expensive tickets and jerseys with these kids' names on them, not caring whether or not said kids have enough to eat, much less whether they're able to read in the first place. (which, ah, might in a rational world affect one's chances of, you know, getting into college).

That's bad enough, but heaven forfend any of these kids making a few bucks off their own name, on their own time. Should a player have the temerity to sell autographs or accept a free tattoo, and not give the NCAA their taste, the NCAA will be up their asses with a quickness. And they act the whole time like they're doing these kids this enormous favor by "giving" them a communications degree that won't be worth shit in the real world, because the market is already saturated with retired athletes turned analysts. And good luck if you blow out your knee before making it to the pros.

So I dunno. Do we boycott the hypocrisy of the NFL and NCAA, show them that we're not going to support this nonsense anymore, any of it? I'm getting very close to that point, personally. People who don't watch sports won't get this, and that's understandable, but whatever the sport, fans will appreciate the fact that we become conditioned to look forward to these spectacles. I was a baseball fan from a very early age; my parents had Dodger season tickets until I was about 7 years old, and I followed most of the California MLB clubs until the '90s, when the sport just became unwatchable. It should not take four hours and five pitchers to get through nine fucking innings, sorry.

But I've also watched football and (to a lesser extent) basketball since second or third grade. For those of us conditioned to wait for the season, to run fantasy football teams (I usually run three or four teams online every season, and play a small weekly book with friends), to watch the games so closely that you can analyze and even predict plays, formations, blocking schemes, it's a hard habit to break.

At this point, though, perhaps sports fandom is the moral equivalent of eating a lot of fast food -- all that tasty fat and sodium can't take away the fact that you're perpetuating and participating in the routine torture and slaughter of factory farming, and just because football is fun to watch (though less and less so, the more overburdened with commercials it becomes), you're still supporting the exploitation, and in most cases eventual physical impairment, of young men -- and the abuse of their spouses.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Free Willing

Interesting op-ed from Rolling Stone's Tim Kreider on the effects of the freebie economy on creative occupations, especially writers, especially journalists and article writers. We covered other aspects of this brave new economy a few months back, and to be sure, the pissing contest between Amazon and the traditional publishing houses still has some thrashing to go before the dinosaurs finally sink into the tar pits.

To recap the high points from before on these various types of professional and creative media:
  • Music is now a loss leader rather than the central product. It is tacitly understood that, since at least a plurality of consumers know or expect to be able to download it for free, the producers hope to use it to get consumers to actually purchase swag, concert tickets, etc.
  • Books are still a product, but Amazon has created an economy of scale and a royalty scheme that flattens the landscape for self-publishing, and disintermediates all the middlemen of the traditional industry. As more people get used to electronic reading, especially when coupled with the ease, portability, and capacity of devices, they have become accustomed to lower prices.
  • Short-form factual writing -- again, informative articles and journalism -- are simply clickbait. The revenue model for websites is strictly ad-based, usually with some combination of Google Adwords or AdSense, Kontera or some such, or even just privately contracting ad space on your website to various buyers. The barrage of cheap and easy "[#] Ways [noun] [verb] [object]" (one typically ludicrous recent ClownHall example is titled "15 Ways Liberals Are Like Bratty Kids") has resulted in a simple go-to template that has been abused practically to death, but shows no signs of abating.
The last example in particular speaks to how and why people like Kreider, who can actually write and provide context and analysis, get hit up for freebies everywhere they turn. Since consumers seem content with the bare minimum, and just about anyone can Google a random subject and generate a list in a short amount of time, listmaking has become a handy substitute for analysis.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of that dynamic is that, while musicians and authors can at least theoretically pin their content either to cross-promotional products, or scale up their audience on Amazon, the journalist has no such options. What we've seen happening is basically your HuffPo model -- create and run your own portal, sell a shitload of ad space (again, the actual product at the end of all this) and then try to corral writers who don't mind trading valuable time for a slim chance at name recognition.

This is one of those issues I keep trying to chicken-egg, back and forth, over and over. Does the lowest common denominator shift because content is cheap and easy, or is the content curation model simply giving people what they wanted all along? In the aggregate, it seems now that too many people are ready and willing to consume a news-like product, devoid of nutrients and context, and unwilling to figure out the context on their own, from, I dunno, a history book, or even a longer article.

It all comes back to asking oneself why precisely we want to inform ourselves, if it's actually to understand how the world works and to make informed decisions based on that knowledge, or just as affirmation of imaginary grievances, or just to be a part of ephemeral cultural phenomena, to anonymously register our impotent outrage on some network news chat board, as if it had any meaning or use.

Ultimately, this is where talented writers like Kreider will lose out, if he's unable to suss the new paradigm. I think his former RS colleague Matt Taibbi has a better grasp of what the new journalism model is for people who actually do journalism, as opposed to people who just want to be a cable news anchor. By complementing his journalistic output with well-researched, topical books, and shrewd, acerbic TV appearances, Taibbi may just be carving a path for a noble but dwindling breed.

Vulgar Display of Moron

One of my pet peeves (and yes, as you might guess, I have many) is when individuals need to be told something that you really shouldn't even have to tell a child. The various ways in which we interact in public places -- driving, shopping, parking, eating in restaurants, attending sports and entertainment events -- require a shared understanding that there are other human beings on this planet. Some folks, because they're just that fucking special, don't trouble themselves with such ordinary considerations.

When someone boxes you in with their lousy parking, when they leave their shopping cart in the middle of the aisle and waddle off to look for an item, when they let their screaming brats run and make noise in a pricey restaurant, when they talk on their fucking phone in the middle of a fucking play, like it's a rock concert or something, the message to everyone else should be clear -- fuck you. I cannot be bothered to maintain even a basic, fundamental amount of common respect for anyone else. I am the only one in this parking lot/supermarket/highway/whatever who matters.

Particularly in the instance of stage performances, where your average dipshit should realize going in that a level of quiet engagement on the part of the audience is necessary both to the enjoyment of the play, and the ability of the performers to do their jobs, you have to really wonder -- why do these idiots go in the first place? If you want to sit there and tweet and eat and play with your toys, why not just stay home, or go to the Starbucks? It makes no sense.

Hopefully these theatres, especially those with name performers, stop leaving it to the actors to browbeat the idiots, or set up special "social media" areas (because, holy shit, their need to live-tweet their attendance at a Kevin Spacey play simply must be accommodated), and just toss them out on their asses.

Doing the Same Thing Again and Again, Expecting a Different Result

The civilian body count in Gaza continues apace, despite the unsurprising revelation that the incident that triggered the current round of conflicts was not perpetrated by Hamas after all. It will end after some number has been reached to generate sufficient outcry by the rest of the world at Israel.

Not that that absolves Hamas in particular -- they really do dig tunnels and stockpile missiles in civilian areas, specifically to goad the Israelis and gin up world outrage, while the Hamas leaders sit in Jordan or Qatar or wherever, and watch it all take place on TV.

But Israel also needs to get it through their heads that, between Gaza and the settlements, the outrageous treatment of Palestinians in their daily lives leaves them quite literally with nothing to lose. Anyone would figure that if there's no reward for good behavior, only more punitive actions, then you might as well try another tack.

At the end of the day, though, Israel really is the only thing resembling a democracy in the region, and certainly more democratic than its neighbors (excepting perhaps Lebanon, which tends to be too weak to avoid meddling and infiltration by Syrian and Iranian entities). The world may be repulsed at the civilian body count Israel is producing, but most are also repulsed at the radicalized Islamist "culture" perpetuating right in Israel's backyard.

It's okay to be objective and call horrible things and people for what they are. What ISIS and other radical groups do in the context of Islamic religion or Arab culture should be separated from those things specifically. What those groups do and impose on their hapless people is nothing more than raw power. Sure, there are things about decadent western society that repulse even most decadent western sensibilities.

But the difference is that we don't force, with violence or the threat of violence, our women to wear beekeeper suits, or beat them if they leave the house unaccompanied, or whip or stone them for having sex. That would be at least one way in which you could differentiate one culture as being objectively superior to another, especially one that hasn't produced anything useful or innovative for hundreds of years.

Back to Gaza. Israel is going to have to make a good-faith effort not just to stop the fighting, or to make concessions entirely contingent on the cessation of any and all hostile incidents, but to curtail the activities -- again, at a local or even neighborhood level -- of settlers and ultra-Zionists, who make the lives of Palestinian residents as miserable as possible. If they do something about that, they might not find themselves back in this fix every year or so.

Free Kindle Books and Random News

Next weekend (August 1st through 3rd) you can pick up Baker's Dozen and Lucky '13 for your Kindle, absolutely free. You're welcome, America.

The plan to bring The Hammer to an end at the end of this year is still very likely to happen. It really just depends at that point how much time and interest I have. Obviously there hasn't been much content lately, for a variety of reasons related to work and general morale and motivation that would sound too self-pitying if I got into it.

And what content there has been seems to revolve around the rather exhausted theme of fat-cat bashing. A few wealthy people are running the world, and your life and my life, and there's not much any of us can do about it. Fine, you get it already. There's only so much more beating that dead horse can take before it disintegrates.

All of which is to say that while I'm not hell-bent on shutting this thing down outright, I'm also not interested in keeping it going just to keep it going. So we'll see.

Anyhoo, as far as the Kindle thing goes, it's been a fun experiment, which I plan to continue as much as possible. There will be another year-end retrospective, as well as an Assholes of the Year mini-book, to release first week of January 2015. Sometime after that, probably in March or April, all six will be bundled together into one package, and sell for probably $1.99 or so.

I'd like also to do a full 10-year retrospective, but to do it right, it should probably be something like picking one post from each month, which obviously is an enormous undertaking. Please let me know in comments if any of this sounds interesting to you.

While the books move some units here and there, none of them ever really had substantial volume, sort of like how this blog itself, while it has very steady, decent traffic, never cracked into the higher levels of fandom. Long-time readers will recall that this was something that annoyed me somewhat back in the day, but I stopped worrying about it quite a while back, at least 5-6 years ago.

Things either click or they don't for a variety of reasons, but the leg-humping necessary to try to convince large numbers of people to check something out is just something I've never been comfortable with, beyond occasional open-thread pimpery at some of the posher joints. So it goes.

Anyway, two free books for your perusal, August 1-3. Grab one, leave a review if you're inclined, etc., etc. Back to your regularly scheduled programming.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Velikaya Voyna, Letom Akuly

So, now that some time has actually passed since Malaysia Flight 17 was shot down, by Russian-backed separatists using Russian-supplied weapons, have we actually learned anything new?

Putin is a bastard. Well, no shit. Good thing he got the Winter Olympics this year, and the 2018 World Cup. Sanctions are one way to hit this prick, another is to delegitimize his prestige goals. So we'll see how many of these outraged countries boycott the World Cup in 2018. But that's a pretty effective way to take the piss out of the guy.

Despite what armchair tough-guys Poor Ol' Straight Talk and Huckleberry Closetcase are braying every Sunday morning on the network circle-jerk, we aren't going to war with Russia. Here is where The Googul, or a history book, or even a decent memory, is helpful. Despite being in some sort of conflict or other since World War 2 ended, almost none of those military actions have been against countries that can actually fight back. Oh, your Iraqs and Vietnams and such like can muster enough guerrilla insurgency to wear us down and make us leave, but I'm talking about countries who can strike back in the US. That hasn't happened, and it ain't gonna happen.

Russia may be something of a Third World despotate (albeit an enormous one), in terms of laws and life expectancy and such, but they aren't in the same league as the banana stands and oil cans we're used to knocking over with our swinging dick.

What we're seeing in Ukraine is a civil war, pure and simple, and it's one that at least in part could have been avoided by more prudent action on the part of the US and Europe. Continuous instigation to get Ukraine into NATO and/or the EU, or to get them on the IMF debt hook, was always going to be unacceptable to Russia, just as Soviet incursions and overtures into (for starters) Cuba and Nicaragua were completely unacceptable to us. Do these people not recall the Saint Reagan years, or was it all just a collective coke-fueled dream?

"So what?", you might say, and not without some justification. "Fuck the Russkies, we run this popsicle stand, baby! USA! USA! Dee-fence, unh-unh! Dee-fence! We're the hegemon, we run the show, we call the shots."

Well, ah, yes and no. This is a classic case of "we got the guns, but they got the numbers"; yes, we have 11 aircraft carriers where no other nation has any, and we have state-of-the-art machinery in every phase of war -- land, sea, air. Hell, our killbot roboplanes are more sophisticated than all but a few conventional manned air forces.

But this has all come at a cost. Fat, drunk, and stupid, as Dean Wormer acidly observed so long ago, is no way to go through life, son. Militarists can jabber on about how the defense budget is at or near an all-time low as a percentage of GDP, but that is meaningless in the context of banana-republic levels of economic inequality and mobility. It is a zero-sum game; all those aircraft carriers and killbots come at the price of something else along the line -- a school, a road, a bridge, an educational grant, something to give someone in the lower dalit strata of 'murkin life an opportunity besides working multiple shit jobs just to survive, or worse yet, becoming a Juggalo.

In the meantime, they attempt to whip the maroons into a jingoist frenzy about Russia, or Syria, or whoever. Ambrose Beirce famously said that war was God's way of teaching Americans geography, but he would be disappointed to know that that is no longer even true, as in order to teach someone something the other party has to be willing to learn. And Americans just don't give a shit about where any of the multifarious objects of this or that week's Two Minutes of Hate are, or what the history or context might mean.

(Or that, uh, it ain't just Ukrusky separatists that shoot down passenger jets. There's your inconvenient truth, podna.)

The thing is, you're supposed to completely ignore the fact that the owners are screwing you over, every day in every way, that quite literally the more people they fuck over, the wealthier they get. Instead, you get bombarded with either a barrage of "the world is going up in flames" stories, again devoid of meaningful context or analysis, or completely meaningless features on the comings and going of "royals", or how some imperceptible change in yet another interchangeable comic-book movie franchise is, like, rilly rilly important.

When 1% of the people control more assets than the bottom 90%, it's a recipe for destabilizing levels of inequality. An increased level of anxiety and fear becomes systemic, and must be, via the corporate propaganda machine, projected onto The Other as much as possible. Whether it's assholes in a country you can't find on a map, or teeming hordes of Central American maras coming to steal your flat-screen teevees and virgin daughters, it's always someone else's fault. Pay no attention to the leveraged-buyout specialists behind the curtain.

Not to fear, though, gentle reader -- though your job has been outsourced to Bangalore, you will still be able to purchase the item you once manufactured for less money, so long as it doesn't exceed your gubmint assistance allowance. But hey, those Apaches are swell, aren't they?

The 1% needn't worry about any of this, mind you -- they can and have put millions of their countrymen out in the street without a care in the world, because increased capital mobility. And if there's one thing they know, it's that large groups of people will literally go live in tents before they'll mobilize and at least try to do something, anything about the fuckers that put them there.

And on the off chance we actually were to send any sort of ground force into Russia, or Ukraine, or anywhere else for that matter, there won't be any one-percenters' kids in the action. There is never any rich skin in this game.

Also, too.